Can TCM Help Anxiety and Depression?

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Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mood disorders, affecting millions of adults in the US. Although there is limited research on the efficacy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for treating anxiety and depression, some clinical trials have reported a therapeutic effect comparable to medication, with fewer side effects. Much of the perceived benefit, however, may be due to the placebo effect, as TCM therapies seem to work for some people but not others.

TCM therapies may be helpful as independent treatments, but they can often be used to complement evidence-based treatments as well. Whatever you decide, be sure to talk to your primary care provider before starting any new course of treatment for anxiety or depression. This will help ensure that you receive safe, coordinated, and optimal care.

How Can Acupuncture Address Issues with Anxiety and Depression?

TCM practitioners believe that physical health issues are connected to a person’s emotional state (and vice versa). Practitioners of TCM view emotions as an integrated aspect of organ functions, and sometimes the root cause of disease. TCM classifies emotions into seven categories, with each emotion corresponding to a particular organ. For example, the lungs are commonly linked to grief and the ability to let go. The seven emotions are anger, joy, fear, worry, grief, fright, and sadness.

One TCM theory on anxiety is that a person can have excessive energy, also referred to as heat or energy (qi), in the head. Symptoms of anxiety akin to this idea include insomnia, racing thoughts, and excessive worry. In such a case, the treatment would consist of inserting needles into various points on the body, such as the fingers, hands, wrists, ankles, and feet, in an effort to redistribute the patient’s energy, in order to improve sleep and reduce worry.

Depression, on the other hand, can be described as stagnant energy within the body. This stagnation can create imbalances that lead to symptoms of depression, such as an inability to focus, melancholy, anger, fatigue, and a lack of inspiration. Acupuncture addresses the issue by  enabling the energy to move more efficiently,  balancing the organ systems and creating homeostasis. The idea is that creating balanced energy better equips a person to manage stress and steady emotions, and enables a more peaceful feeling.

But How Does Acupuncture Work?

Imagine your body is a river with water flowing through it. When a tree falls in the middle of the river, it creates havoc at the top and bottom of the river as well. Things like a poor diet, emotional stress, or physical trauma are the equivalent of the tree falling in the river. Acupuncture attempts to remove the tree and restore the normal flow of energy throughout your body.

What TCM Therapies Are Most Beneficial for Anxiety and Depression?

Acupuncture and herbs are the most common Chinese medicine therapies for treating anxiety and depression. Acupuncture consists of stimulating points on the body through the skin with tiny, sterile needles. Chinese medicine practitioners may also prescribe herbs made of plant and mineral products. Herbs can be as powerful as prescription drugs, and may have side effects, so be sure any herbal prescription you take is prescribed by a licensed acupuncturist. Herbs typically come in pill or liquid form, but the most potent herbs are traditionally brewed into tea.

Additionally, since practitioners of TCM regard the body and lifestyle as a single system, they consider other factors in determining a treatment plan. These factors may result in supplemental recommendations regarding a patient’s diet and environment, as well as meditation and exercise suggestions. Regardless of what treatments a TCM practitioner uses or prescribes during a session, the goal is to treat both body and mind.

TCM treatments for anxiety and depression are unique for each patient, as every person has a unique constitution and imbalances. As a patient’s symptoms and issues adjust, a practitioner will likely change his or her treatments accordingly.

How Long Will It Take to Feel Results?

Healing time depends on the patient and the severity of his or her symptoms. Some patients report relief after just one session of acupuncture. Others may feel a difference within weeks or a month’s time, while still others might take up to several months to feel back to normal. A typical treatment schedule might begin with one to two sessions a week, tapering as the patient’s symptoms begin to improve.

If you’re experiencing problems with anxiety and depression, talk to your health care provider about treatment options, and whether you might benefit from trying TCM therapies.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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